It was another week of bridge-building in Turkish foreign policy as Turkey continues to try to relieve some of the pressures it faces, both politically and economically. A concerted effort is being made to set things straight with Egypt; a phone call between President Erdogan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia suggests a more personalized approach to resetting Turkish-Saudi relations, bypassing the controversial crown prince Muhammad bin Salman. The outreach, our chief political scientist argues, is necessary but a reset in relations will not happen overnight, he cautions. Turkey’s attempts to be the dominant player in the region is proving more trouble, perhaps, than it’s worth. But where can Turkey go from here?
Adnan R. Khan: How genuine of an outreach is this and how much of it is political theater?
Ilter Turan: We don’t know the answer to this, and the fact is that the countries that Turkey is trying to make amends with also don’t know the answer. It is still unclear whether Turkey is trying to make temporary changes in its policy to get itself out of the bind it finds itself in or whether it has decided to make a fundamental shift in its approach to the region.
As it stands, apart from the current shaky government of Libya, Turkey does not have particularly good relations with any of its Arab neighbors, even Iraq. So, it feels isolated; there are various efforts to restrain it; it is getting excluded from the region. I think Turkey has recognized that somehow it has to make amends with these neighbors. So, we see a number of initiatives: the foreign ministers of Egypt and Turkey are communicating, establishing a parliamentary friendship group is also on the table. Turkey has been making overtures to others including Saudi Arabia; and there are plans to improve relations with Israel. •n the whole, Turkey appears to have turned away from the idea of a “noble loneliness” – the loneliness that comes with aspiring to become the exclusive dominant regional power. It is instead trying to reach out to all sides.
But the fact remains that a shift to a more engaged regional policy would mean abandoning some core features of its foreign policy. It would mean, for instance, no longer siding with the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements; it would mean refraining from attempts of going past the governments to influence Arab masses; and it would mean ending support for opposition movements in these countries, including opposition media efforts based in and out of Turkey.
We simply don’t know at this point if Turkey has decided to make these fundamental shifts, which would ultimately mean it will no longer aspire to be the unquestioned leader of the region. Before others are persuaded that it has made this fundamental shift, I’m afraid Turkey will not get the anticipated results as quickly as it hopes.
Adnan R. Khan: Indeed, it seems as if even the friends it has like Libya are asking it to take a step back. Now the Libyans appear to be demanding that Turkey withdraw the irregular and maybe the regular forces it has deployed there.
Ilter Turan: Yes. This is also becoming an issue in Syria. The broader issue Turkey faces is that when you go down a certain foreign policy path, you create certain difficult to control engagements. When you then try to change policy, you may find that it is not so easy to roll back those engagements. If you have made commitments to particular armed groups – if you, in fact, nurtured them and used them as fighting forces in other areas – then once you change policy, the question of what you are going to do with them inevitably arises. What do you do if those groups are not happy with your decision do not comply and even take up arms against you?
Similar issues crop up on the geopolitical front. When Turkey turned to adversarial relationships with its neighbors, they developed security and economic arrangements among them that excluded Turkey. Just because Turkey is now appearing to change its policy, these already made commitments are not going to disappear.
Similarly, when we look at NATO arrangements in the eastern Mediterranean and other security arrangements, we observe, for example, that the U.S. has now strengthened its military presence in Greece, becoming less reliant on Turkey in securing its interests in the region. Regional countries have integrated UAE into military exercises against Turkey. These are all facts that cannot be changed overnight. So, I think what Turkey needs to do is to demonstrate in a dramatic way that it is changing its policy and wants to become fully integrated into the region. Then maybe things can begin to change. But if its actions are simply transactional gestures to get out of the current difficult situation, I would judge that most outside observers will easily see through it.
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